January 19, 2024 | Reid Kerr-Keller

A Million Dollar Treasure Hidden In The Rockies: The Forrest Fenn Story

The Million-Dollar Treasure Hidden In The Rockies

The man responsible for the mystery of the Fenn treasure was Forrest Fenn, a one-time Air Force pilot who retired in middle-age, only to become one of the most notorious collectors (some would say thief) of rare and interesting historical artifacts in the world.

It all started when Fenn claimed that somewhere in the 100,000 square miles between Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Canadian border to the North, was a hidden chest containing over a million dollars-worth of priceless artifacts and gold.

Allegedly. For years, the truth was as concealed as the treasure...until now.

Forrest Fenn treasure

A World-Class Collection

There's no denying that Fenn's life was almost outrageously interesting.

At his homestead in Santa Fe, he developed a museum-like collection he claimed had attracted celebrities like Steve Martin, Gerald Ford, and Jackie Kennedy, all of whom came to see the wonders he had on display. 

The process of building that collection was his life's work, which often involved (in his own admission) skirting the boundaries of the law, as well as the conventions of more mild-mannered archaeologists. 

Forrest Fenn Editorial

The Thrill Of The Chase

He'd been trapped in caves and dropped from helicopters, fought off rattle-snakes and hid from the law, all in the pursuit of earthly treasures. So it was perhaps no surprise when, in the autumn of 2010, Fenn published a memoir detailing his adventures. He called it The Thrill of the Chase

It received a limited print run of just 1,000 copies, which could only be purchased at a single indie bookstore in Santa Fe. But things didn't go as Fenn planned

Forrest Fenn EditorialABC Nightline, Youtube

A Cold Reception

Hardly anyone paid attention.

Why should they? Although Fenn was famous in the world of archaeology and art collection, and a very rich man, he was hardly a household name. Just another oddity in a world full of them.

There was, however, one aspect of the book that shocked those first readers: Fenn's claim that he had hidden a box of treasures somewhere in the wilderness. It was the first public mention of the Fenn Treasure.

Forrest Fenn EditorialABC Nightline, Youtube

The Inspiration 

Fenn claimed the idea first took hold of him in 1988, after he was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer. Doctors gave him a short time to live. Lawyers asked him to put his affairs in order. Fenn decided it was time to shore up his legacy.

He put together what he believed to be a sufficiently valuable and alluring prize, and began to plan a trip to his intended hiding spot with a morbid goal in mind—to die beside his treasure. Fate, though, intervened. 

Fenn recovered from his supposedly terminal diagnosis, and for decades he left his plan unrealized…

emergency  in hospitalGround Picture, Shutterstock

He Hid It

But then, Fenn claimed, he finally did it. On his 80th birthday, he supposedly loaded up his trove of gold and trinkets and made the trip deep into the Rocky Mountains to deposit it...somewhere. 

At the end of the book, Fenn published a 24-line poem that held the only clues to the treasure's location. The chest, he said, would be the property of whoever found it. Before long, the legend of Fenn's treasure grew. 

In 2013, the Today show aired a special on Fenn and his strange, mysterious treasure, and before long the book was a national sensation. There were buyers all across the world, from Ecuador to Italy. 

Planet Earth quizRawpixel

Too Good To Be True?

At this point people started asking: What if there's no Fenn Treasure at all?

It was a valid question. After all, Forrest Fenn was never a man who was afraid to bend the truth. There have always been those who claimed Fenn's achievements were exaggerated at best—or even outright lies

One of those people was Fenn himself. Indeed, in The Thrill of the Chase, Fenn admitted to his own complicated relationship to the truth. "One of my natural instincts is to embellish just a little," he wrote. He also claimed it was that very ability to distort and spin that helped him to build a reputation as a dealer of rare works.

It's a dubious claim. And there's no doubt that Fenn's reputation as a blowhard has earned him a fair few detractors along the way.

Bill O'Reilly factsGetty Images

Treasure Hunter Or Thief?

Firstly there are other archaeologists who've made a habit of labeling Forrest Fenn a "plunderer." Fenn often denied this label, despite his frequent boasts about operating outside the normal bounds of decency and good taste. 

Secondly, there are state and federal authorities, who more than once had accused Fenn of digging in protected areas, or, more disturbingly, of grave robbing. One example of the controversy that Fenn stirred up is the San Lazaro Pueblo, one of the most significant archaeological sites in all of New Mexico, which Fenn purchased. 

He'd spent thousands of hours digging around his little slice of paradise, turning up priceless treasures like arrow-heads, Spanish bells, and one of the oldest Native-American dance masks that's ever been recovered. Fenn referred to the pueblo as a "retreat" where he was free to indulge his life's obsession. 

The state of New Mexico, though, said he was making a profit by stealing from the graves that littered the ground around his property.

Artefacts In The British Museum's Winning At The Ancient Games ExhibitionGetty Images

Dreams Become Nightmares

Of course, the question of legitimacy was not the only controversy around Fenn's treasure.

Remember: The area where Fenn's treasure might have been hidden was absolutely massive (almost 100,00 square miles). For almost a decade, obsessive treasure hunters made it their goal to comb every inch of that land, but came up empty.

Every time someone failed, the community that had grown around the ongoing hunt got a little more rabid, a little more obsessive—and a little more careless. 

Planet Earth quizRawpixel

A Deadly Pursuit

At least four people died in the hunt for the gold. In early 2016, a middle-aged man from Colorado went missing with a raft near Cochiti Lake in New Mexico. His body turned up 6 months later. 

It was the first fatality for a Searcher, but it was quickly followed by three more in rapid succession: a 53-year-old man from Illinois who fell down a mountain, a Colorado pastor who drowned in the Rio Grande, and a 31-year-old man who moved across the country to look for the treasure before drowning in the Arkansas River.

Mountain climber on Mount Whitney, Sierra Nevada MountainsGetty Images

What Did He Think? 

Fenn's reaction to these deaths was curious. On the one hand, he responded with frequent warnings to potential hunters about safety. 

In one post on a popular blog, he wrote: "The treasure chest is not underwater, nor is it near the Rio Grande River. It is not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice. Please remember that I was about 80 when I made two trips from my vehicle to where I hid the treasure."

Then again, when pressed by journalists from Wired magazine about the long-term fate of Fenn's treasure hunt, he insisted it was worth it. 

His response was bold. "If I called off the search, what would I say to the 350,000 people who have had wonderful experiences hiking in the mountains with no ill effects except but a few mosquito bites? An average of 12 people die each year at the Grand Canyon. There is a risk in nearly everything we do."

Thomas Seymour factsPixabay

Found At Last

For years, Fenn maintained that his treasure was real. In 2020, the world learned the truth. 

That's when Jack Stuef, a French medical student, found Fenn's legendary treasure. the exact location of the treasure still hasn't been revealed, but we do know that it was found somewhere in Wyoming. Forrest Fenn passed on three months after the treasure was found. He was 90 years old.

In December 2022, the contents of the treasure chest were put up for auction, bringing in $1.3 million and finally concluding the mystery of the Fenn treasure. 

Philip IV, The Iron King factsShutterstock

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


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